Following from my last blog about what exactly a teenager is, let’s look at the basic dos and don’ts – the golden rules – for managing pre-teen and early teen behaviour.
Privacy is very important for a young person of this age. Respect it, and make sure your young person respects yours. Knock, if their bedroom door is closed, before going in. Don’t read your child’s letters, emails or texts, listen to their phone conversations, spy on them or search their room or bags, unless you have grave concerns for your child’s safety. And don’t give them the third degree every time they return home from seeing their friends – they will resent it. Trust their judgement unless they have given you cause not to.
Hear their views
Your young person will have a lot of views at this age, about lots of things, and will want to express them, using you and your partner as ‘sounding boards’. Some of what your teen tells you as fact will be absolute nonsense. One teenage girl I fostered announced categorically that she couldn’t wash her hair while she had a period as it would make her ill, while a teenage boy once told me that the earth changed the direction of its rotation every year, with such conviction that I went online and checked. (It doesn’t, of course.) Listen to what your young person says, and always take his or her view seriously. If you know what they are saying is wrong or misguided, gently explain what is generally held to be true, consigning it to someone else if necessary – ‘I heard on the radio that . . .’ or ‘I was reading an article that said . . .’
Keep the pathways of communication open, no matter how difficult it is. When your teen talks to you, a single grunt usually mean yes, while a deeper grunt accompanied with a sigh can be taken as no. Ask for your young person’s opinion about anything that might elicit a response – world events, a new dress you’ve bought, the poodle’s new hair cut; and ask about his or her day at school, or evening with a friend, but don’t pry.
Praise your young person as much if not more than you did when they were young. A drop in self-confidence and poor body image is the blight of many pre-teens. Praise them each day; even if you have had a bad time, with their seeming to relish confrontation, still find something good to say about them or what they have done. Although they are unlikely to acknowledge your praise, other than with a grunt, they will hear and appreciate it.
Children of this age are very sensitive to criticism, often seeing and feeling it even where there is none. If your young person’s behaviour is unacceptable and needs altering, or they have made a really bad decision, don’t criticise them personally and explode with, ‘How stupid can one person be!’ Instead, temper it to ‘I don’t think that was the best option, do you?’ Or ‘I know you are annoyed, but please don’t speak to me like that.’
Steer your young person to the correct decision, and confirm that they got it right with praise and acknowledgment. Children of this age need guidance more than ever; it’s just that they don’t always realise they do. Don’t be tempted to ‘throw in the towel’ and give in – ‘All right! Do it your way then! And you’ll see I’m right!’. If it is something quite minor and safe, like the best method of making shortcrust pastry, then they can be left to get on with it and learn from their mistakes. But if it’s something major that can affect their well-being, then your young teen needs to accept your guidance.
Maintain family time
Keep family time, and go on outings (despite your teen’s grumbles). Doing this helps cement family relationships and bonding, and reduces confrontation and rebelliousness. However, you might have to adjust the extent of your young person’s participation. While you took your five-year-old to visit granny twice a week, visiting that often might not be appropriate for a 13-year-old who has homework and club activities – fortnightly might be more practical.
Give your young person age-appropriate responsibility and encourage self-reliance so that he or she gradually develops the life skills on which to base his or her own (sensible) decisions. The level of maturity reached and life skills acquired at this age vary from child to child, so while it might be appropriate to put a saw in the hand of one 13-year-old and ask him or her to saw up logs for the fire, it might not be wise to ask another more impetuous child.
Keep your young person safe. At this age children assume they are safe, and will always be safe, without making any objective risk assessment of the situation. A young teen can sometimes show an astonishing disregard for danger and indulge in very unsafe behaviour, and look totally amazed when you point out that they are at risk. At this age teens are still very naïve, and while they believe they know how to stay safe, they often don’t – they are only just out of childhood and haven’t the life experience to recognise danger in situations which are obvious to adults. When you are met with an indignant ‘But I’m 13!’ in response to something you have asked your young person to do, or not do, you can reply, ‘Yes, I know, love, and you are growing fast, but I am not happy about you coming come alone on the bus after dark [or whatever it is]. I don’t think it’s safe.’ And don’t be persuaded otherwise. You are not being over-protective but making a reasonable judgement based on years of experience.
Don’t satirise or make fun of your young person or their actions, some of which may appear quite juvenile and silly. And don’t tease, or make your young teen the butt of a joke. Many adults have problems being on the receiving end of a joke or being made fun of, and your young adolescent will certainly not be able to cope with it. They will take it personally and will feel very embarrassed and resentful, especially if there is an audience and everyone has looked at them and laughed. Children of this age are very sensitive and easily become embarrassed and blush. Try to stop other adults from poking fun at your teen too. Often well-meaning relatives or family friends will have a joke at a young teen’s expense, not intending any harm. If you are aware that a comment or joke has caused your young person embarrassment, mention it lightly to them when you are alone – ‘That was a silly thing for Auntie Jean to say; of course you wash behind your ears’ or ‘Granddad doesn’t understand that orange-streaked hair is fashionable now.’ There is no harm in siding with your young person in this manner; he or she will feel and appreciate your sensitivity and support, although they won’t say so.
Don’t take it personally
Don’t expect a lot back in the way of positive recognition for your care and concern on any matter at this age, or else you will be sadly disappointed. Look upon everything you say and do for your young person during this period as an investment for a smoother ride later. At this age you are an embarrassment to your young person. It’s normal so don’t take it personally. But obviously don’t do anything to embarrass them. This includes talking loudly in a public place, kissing them goodbye on the cheek, standing too close to them in a public place, returning a faulty item to the shop while they are with you and other similar behaviour. Often just having a carer is an embarrassment for a young person of this age, although of course deep down they know that they couldn’t do without you.
There is more detailed advice on all aspects of child rearing in my book Happy Kids.